I love books. And newspapers. And magazines. And cereal boxes. Well, maybe not cereal boxes – I’m more of a toast and tea person at breakfast time. (Or better yet, croissants et café au lait, en France…but that’s another story).
Still, I love to read, and I read voraciously, and yes, I do enjoy the feel of a book, and the smell of the ink (volatile organic compounds, anyone?), and the physical act of turning pages as I make my way through an article, book, or technical paper.
But there’s more to the appeal of printed media than simply the physical experience.
As one who makes a living finding, analyzing, and organizing online information, I spend most of my waking hours staring at my computer screen…reading. It’s a vastly different experience than reading hard copy. The very nature of online information, enriched by links to and from ancillary and supplemental sources, presented in bits and pieces, and broken up by increasingly noisy and jumpy advertising, practically demands that we, as readers, constantly interrupt ourselves, break our concentration, and abandon a line of thought to pursue the links or scowl at the ads.
How deeply do we read when we read online? Have we trained ourselves out of our ability to focus on a single reading task? Does it make a difference to how we comprehend, analyze, and retain information?
Apparently, I'm not the only one who has wondered about this.
In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, two researchers reported on how well readers retain information from print vs. online sources. Slate reports as follows:
The paper, “Medium Matters: Newsreaders' Recall and Engagement With Online and Print Newspapers”, by Arthur D. Santana, Randall Livingstone, and Yoon Cho of the University of Oregon, pit[s] a group of readers of the print edition of the New York Times against Web-Times readers. Each group was given 20 minutes[’] reading time and asked to complete a short survey.The researchers found that the print folks “remember significantly more news stories than online news readers[;”] that print readers “remembered significantly more topics than online newsreaders[;”] and that print readers remembered “more main points of news stories.” When it came to recalling headlines, print and online readers finished in a draw.…The paper explores several theories for why print rules. Online newspapers tend to give few cues about a story's importance, and the “agenda-setting function” of newspapers gets lost in the process. “Online readers are apt to acquire less information about national, international and political events than print newsreaders because of the lack of salience cues; they generally are not being told what to read via story placement and prominence—an enduring feature of the print product,” the researchers write. [Whew, that sentence needs an iron-fisted editor!] The paper finds no evidence that the “dynamic online story forms” (you know, multimedia stuff) have made stories more memorable.The paper cites other researchers on the subject who have theorized that the layout of online pages—which often insert ads mid-story or force[s] readers to click additional pages to finish the story—may alter the reading experience. A print story, even one that jumps to another page, is not as difficult to chase to its conclusion. Newspapers are less distracting—as anybody who has endured an annoying online ad while reading a news story on the Web knows. Also, and I'm channeling the paper a little bit here, by virtue of habit and culture a newspaper commands a different sort of respect, engagement, and focus from readers.Food for thought.Via Slate, http://www.slate.com/id/2302014/ and http://img.slate.com/media/66/MediumMatters.pdf[Why does this brief excerpt from Slate have so many errors of punctuation?]